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FOR EXPERT COMMENT: MU Expert Says Voters Find Presidential Primary Debates More Useful than General-Election Debates

May 4th, 2011

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The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— On May 5, voters will have an opportunity to assess Republican candidates who want to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Mitchell S. McKinney, associate professor of communication at the University of Missouri, is an internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates.

Fox News will broadcast the first Republican presidential primary debate from Greenville, S.C. this Thursday. Candidates on the debate stage include former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.

Mitchell S. McKinney, associate professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, is an internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates whose work in analyzing candidate debates has taken him across the country and the world.

McKinney’s research has focused particular attention on presidential primary debates. Previously, his analysis has indicated that candidates approach their primary debate performances much differently than candidates engaged in general-election debates. In addition, McKinney has found that viewers find these early debate encounters much more useful than presidential debates that occur near the end of the campaign.

McKinney’s extensive research on presidential debates has provided answers to questions such as:

  • In a debate that features a large field of candidates, how do viewers make distinctions among candidates of the same party whose issue positions are often quite similar?
  • How do candidates emerge from a large field of candidates to distinguish themselves from their rivals?
  • How do early primary debates help organize a large field of candidates into the front runners, the contenders, and the also-rans, or those who have little success?

  • How do primary debates help a party and voters identify the strongest candidate for the general election?

McKinney says that a primary candidate’s image in difficult and often sensitive attack strategies becomes a prominent cue for voters. In addition, McKinney notes that Republicans must maintain party loyalty and unity during the marathon of primary debates.

In 1992, McKinney consulted with the Commission on Presidential Debates, advising the Commission on how debates could be structured in order to better educate citizens on significant campaign issues. McKinney also served as an advisor to the presidential debate committee of South Korea in 2002 as Seoul officials planned their very first televised presidential debates.

In addition to advising international, national, state and local campaign debate planning committees, McKinney is the co-author of Presidential Debates in Focus, and he has co-authored and edited four other books and numerous research articles on presidential debates.